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Dispatch

Hindu Nationalists Are Pushing Magical Remedies for the Coronavirus

Ayurvedic medicine and other pseudosciences are being pushed by BJP politicians.

Shree Maa Anantanand sits behind medicine made from cow urine, which she uses to treat patients suffering kidney ailments and cancer at her hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Feb. 27, 2010.
Shree Maa Anantanand sits behind medicine made from cow urine, which she uses to treat patients suffering kidney ailments and cancer at her hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Feb. 27, 2010. Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images

MUMBAI—Worried about the coronavirus? Well, just turn to the ever-useful cow. On March 2, Suman Haripriya, an elected member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said that cow urine and cow dung could be used to combat the outbreak. Chakrapani Maharaj, a Hindu leader, told a news site he would be organizing an event to educate people on the use of cow products to fight the disease.

Those aren’t the only remedies from the Hindu-nationalist toolbox. Baba Ramdev, a popular guru, told a television channel that Ayurvedic remedies could be deployed. And a few days ago Yogi Adityanath, the fire-breathing Hindu-nationalist chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, exhorted Indians to practice yoga to overcome stress and stay strong against various diseases, including the coronavirus.

The promotion of nationalist pseudoscience under the BJP has worried Indian scientists and skeptics for years. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, even some scientists looking to ride the wave have trotted out claims about ancient India having had airplanes and stem-cell research, while there have been fierce fights over attempts to license traditional medicine practitioners. The government restructured existing departments to create the Ministry of AYUSH (the acronym combines several traditional or pseudoscientific schools of medicine), to cover such practices.

Public figures, especially members of the Hindu right, championing folk remedies or upholding ancient wisdom is thus neither new nor surprising. In recent years there have been such gems as: a BJP state chief minister claiming ancient Indians used the Internet, the prime minister himself alluding to plastic surgery as the possible reason behind the god Ganesh’s elephant head on a human body, another BJP chief minister asserting that cows exhaled oxygen, and union ministers who have said that both cow urine and yoga can be used in treatments for cancer.

The coronavirus has added fuel to the fire. The Ministry of AYUSH issued a dubious advisory on Jan. 29, shortly after the spread of the virus outside China increased. It was titled “Homoeopathy for Prevention of Corona virus Infections: Unani Medicines useful in symptomatic management of Corona Virus infection” and suggested traditional remedies. A second advisory claimed the homeopathic medicine “arsenicum album 30” could be used as a preventative prophylactic. Homeopathy is a Western-invented pseudoscience that doles out microscopic doses of treatments, and it has become vastly popular in India. It does not work.

“Health misinformation has always been an issue, especially since the formation of AYUSH which has been officially spreading misinformation about health,” said Pratik Sinha, the co-founder and editor of Alt News, a fact-checking site, which has run pieces debunking the claims.

So far India has seen 43 confirmed cases of the virus, but no deaths. Given the country’s population density and creaking public health infrastructure, experts fear that the disease could quickly overwhelm health systems if not handled correctly.

And while the virus may be spreading unseen in India, so, more obviously, are a raft of baseless assertions. “It is a big challenge to identify and debunk medical misinformation,” said Nabeela Khan, deputy editor at Health Analytics Asia, a data-driven health news platform. “Even when you debunk it, it hardly reaches people because fake news travels faster … but when influencers and leaders make dubious claims, people tend to fall for it all the more easily…. It is important that politicians say things that are based on some scientific evidence and rationing.”

The government does take the coronavirus issue seriously. This week Modi announced he would skip Holi celebrations—a festival that starts on Monday and usually draws huge crowds for playful events—and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that all international passengers were being screened upon arrival. In Delhi, Rajasthan, and Hyderabad, where infected people are known to have traveled, several others have been quarantined and tested. But as Anant Bhan, a researcher in global health, bioethics, and health policy at Kasturba Medical College in Manipal, pointed out, “What the health ministry is saying and what the Ayush ministry is saying are not necessarily in conjunction.”

The dangers of disinformation and misinformation are obvious: In a developing country with high Internet connectivity and low literacy, bad information could have fatal consequences. “Whether during times of conflict or outbreaks, any irresponsible statement can have very negative implications through fanning fear-mongering and the spread of panic,” said Bhan.

With fake news and general WhatsApp virality both serious problems in India, politicians and influencers alike have been guilty of acting irresponsibly.

“Different kinds of misinformation are spread for different reasons. With political misinformation it’s from a position of hate and anger, that’s not the case with medical misinformation, which is often out of concern or fear,” said Sinha. “With some of these pseudoscientific claims, the motivation is a false sense of nationalism, which leads to a feeling of victimhood that traditional Indian remedies are looked down upon.”

India is constitutionally a “secular” state, and its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, helped lay the foundations for a “temper of science” in the country, by focusing on building newly independent India’s educational and research institutes. India has seen a growing tech industry since the 1990s, and with its ambitious space missions has aspired to join the ranks of the global superpowers. However, as the Hindu right has strengthened in the past few decades, science, pseudoscience and religion have become mixed up in a homogenizing nationalist drive undergirded by the glories of the past.

“On and off public figures have been making unscientific claims but in the past six years this has gone up significantly. Nowadays we also see university vice chancellors make such claims to pander to the political class,” said Aniket Sule, a science educator and astrophysicist.

The BJP, which returned to power in 2019 for a second term, has long held that India is fundamentally a Hindu nation. Claiming ownership of modern discoveries or innovations as actually Indian has become a way to signal the glory of India as a civilization.

“We are in an era where populist politicians everywhere have a fan following that does not think critically. It creates a problem — then how do you convince people? Some of this stems from ignorance as populist movements don’t have a strong intellectual background, so an inferiority complex morphs into a superiority complex,” said Sule.

In a piece in 2017, opposition leader and writer Shashi Tharoor sharply condemned the government’s war on reason. “Science and rationality threaten such conformism, because they encourage skepticism, free inquiry, and testing of the traditional perspectives that the BJP is so eager to entrench,” he wrote. “That is why, as the BJP attempts to transform secular India into a Hindu state, it must weaken the role of science.”

Over the years, the BJP has been accused of stifling any criticism or dissent, whilst fomenting religious polarization and nationalist pride. Their growing political power has also meant that godmen and gurus have found greater prominence, whilst rationalists and activists have come under attack.

Academics and scientists have been increasingly vocal against the Modi-led BJP’s attack on universities and institutions. But as ridiculous as some of the pseudoscientific statements from the mouths of politicians and gurus are, they show no signs of abating. The comments around the coronavirus are only the latest in a war against rationalism that could be long and hard. “If scientific funds, already low, are going to be diverted to study the effects of cow urine or the scriptures it will have very real consequences for scientific policy and research,” said Sule.

Bhavya Dore is an Indian journalist based in Mumbai.

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